March 20, 2011

Rising Iowa State has skill holes to fill

Posting raucous locker room celebrations on YouTube is becoming something of an annual rite for Iowa State.

A stunner over Nebraska in 2009 and a shocker over Texas in 2010 is a heck of a one-two punch for Iowa State in its first two seasons under coach Paul Rhoads. But the Cyclones need to pull off more than one major upset a year to be a legitimate factor in the Big 12 race.

That will require accumulating more quality depth and adequately filling voids left by departed starters -- particularly at quarterback and running back.

IOWA STATE AT-A-GLANCE
Jerome Tiller started once and played in seven games last season, but he completed fewer than half of his passing attempts.
THE BASICS
Coach: Paul Rhoads
Last season: 5-7 overall, 3-5 in the Big 12 North
Spring dates: March 22-April 16.
RETURNING STARTERS
(minimum seven starts last season)
Offense (4): T Brayden Burris, WR Darius Darks, G Hayworth Hicks, T Kelechi Osemele.
Defense (7): CB Ter'Ran Benton, CB Leonard Johnson, LB A.J. Klein, LB Jake Knott, E Patrick Neal, CB Jeremy Reeves, T Stephen Ruempolhamer.
Special teams (2): K Grant Mahoney, P Kirby Van Der Kamp.
Even if a quality running back surfaces and a star emerges from an impending quarterback competition this spring, the Cyclones don't figure to have the overall strength to challenge Oklahoma for conference supremacy.

Yet if the Cyclones make significant progress in areas of need this spring, they may set themselves up to make a run at a bowl appearance this fall.

Here's a look at the Cyclones as they head into spring drills.

Positions of strength

The Cyclones generally are solid at linebacker and this season will be no different. Juniors Jake Knott and A.J. Klein both notched more than 100 tackles last season. Knott earned all-conference recognition. Sophomore Jeremiah George and redshirt freshmen C.J. Morgan and Floyd Mattison have strong potential. Iowa State is set at cornerback. Seniors Ter'Ran Benton and Leonard Johnson and junior Jeremy Reeves are athletic and experienced. Both of last season's starting offensive tackles -- senior Kelechi Osemele and junior Brayden Burris -- are back this season.

Help is needed

RB Alexander Robinson, who rushed for more than 2,000 yards over the past two seasons, completed his eligibility. That leaves a big void. No other running back on the roster had more than 218 yards. Both starting safeties are gone, and the potential successors have little experience. Senior Earl Brooks hasn't played much, junior college transfer Durrell Givens sat out as a redshirt last season and sophomores Deon Broomfield and Jacques Washington must prove they're ready to compete at a high level.

3 guys to watch

QB Steele Jantz: The quarterback job is up for grabs and Jantz (6-3/216), a JC transfer who enrolled in January, could take it. Last season, he passed for 3,057 and rushed for 601 yards at City College of San Francisco. He'll compete with holdover Jerome Tiller to determine who'll lead the Cyclones.

DT Cleyon Laing: A native of Canada, Laing posted 15 tackles in a backup role last season. He'll compete to get in the starting lineup this fall. At the least, he should be in the rotation at tackle.

DE Rony Nelson: The Cyclones' most athletic end, Nelson sat out last season because of academic issues. He'll a top candidate to win a starting job this spring. Iowa State desperately needs to upgrade the pass rush and Nelson figures to give it a boost.

The pressure is on

LB Matt Tau'fo'ou: Two years ago, Tau'fo'ou arrived in Ames as a junior college All-American. But he hasn't done much for the Cyclones. He has had injuries and off-field issues. As a result, he's started just two games in two seasons and has a total of 21 tackles. If he doesn't establish himself this spring as a senior, Iowa State coaches could move younger players with more potential ahead of him.

The buzz

As is typically the case when the previous starting quarterback -- in this case, Austen Arnaud -- completes his eligibility, the main topic in the spring is the competition at that position. That's true with the Cyclones. Tiller started once and played in seven games last season, but completed fewer than half of his passing attempts. Jantz will challenge for the job, and sophomore James Capello will try to upstage both of them. Overall, the Cyclones need to develop depth to be more of a factor in the Big 12 race and make a run at another bowl appearance.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.




 

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